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Writers and the Immigrant Experience: Middle East, Europe and Africa

Doreen Baingana



Welcome to THIS IS AMERICA, in VOA Special English. I'm Steve Ember.


And I'm Faith Lapidus. Today we have the third and last part of our series about writers and the immigrant experience.


Last January we talked about Asian American writers. In December it was writers with ties to Central and South America and the Caribbean.


Now, to complete our series, we look at four writers and the influence of their ancestry in the Middle East, Europe and Africa.



Elmaz Abinader was born to parents from Lebanon. The writer and poet grew up in a small town in the eastern American state of Pennsylvania.

Her family spoke mostly Arabic at home. She says her family was very close, but at school other children insulted her for being different. She looked for some connection between her two lives.


Elmaz Abinader says everything changed when she went to college. She took control of her identity. She began to cook Middle Eastern foods and to listen to Arabic music with her friends. She also began to write about her grandmother.

Miz Abinader studied writing in college. But she says most of the American writers she studied had European roots. She felt that her culture was not welcome in American writing. This was in the nineteen seventies.

At some point, she read a book that, in her words, “made the difference.” The book was “The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts.” It was written by the Chinese American writer Maxine Hong Kingston. In it, she tells stories about her Chinese grandmother, and about children considered too American for their immigrant family.

This book led Elmaz Abinader to read works by others outside the center of American culture, such as African American and Latino writers. She found a community of people like her, learning to live in two cultures.


Miz Abinader went on to earn a doctorate in writing. She called her first book, in nineteen ninety-one, “Children of the Roojme: A Family’s Journey from Lebanon.” It is about her family’s move over the years to the United States.

She also writes poetry. And she writes and performs plays. Her play “Country of Origin” is about the struggles of three Arab American women. The play includes music that is a mix of old Middle Eastern sounds and present-day jazz.

Elmaz Abinader says she began to understand years ago that as a writer, she was also an activist. Today she is a professor of creative writing at Mills College in Oakland, in Northern California. She says a beautiful story or a good poem can affect a reader more than any speech.

Her aim, she says, is to make the story of Arab Americans as important as that of any other group in the United States.



In September of two thousand four, the writer Aleksandar Hemon received a MacArthur Foundation award. These are known as “genius awards.” They are given each year to individuals who show great creativity in their work. MacArthur Fellows are given five hundred thousand dollars over five years to spend as they wish.

Aleksandar Hemon is the author of “The Question of Bruno” and “Nowhere Man.” Both books are about young men born in Sarajevo. Their lives are changed by the war in the former Yugoslavia in the early nineteen nineties.

Like the men in his books, Mister Hemon grew up in Sarajevo. He became a reporter and writer. He came to the United States in nineteen ninety-two as part of a cultural program. He was twenty-seven years old. After the Bosnian war started, Mister Hemon could not return home. He stayed in America and settled in Chicago.


Book critics have praised his expert and beautiful use of the English language. Yet Aleksandar Hemon spoke only a little English when he arrived in the United States. He got low-paying work. He improved his language skills very quickly by reading books in English. Mister Hemon wrote his first book in English after only three years in the United States.

He has said that one of the most difficult things for him as a new immigrant was this: Recognizing the difference between what he wanted to say and what he was really saying. He says this changed the way he thought about the self. And it changed his writing. He saw that a person was made up of many selves.

Aleksander Hemon also writes about displaced people who do not feel part of any community. He says telling stories is one way to record the old life that is lost, perhaps in war. He says stories should be told about wars and genocide so that the official version of history is not the only one that exists.



Andrei Codrescu has published many books of poetry. He has also written about his life and his travels. But he is best known for his commentaries on American culture on National Public Radio. He lives in New Orleans and is a professor of writing at Louisiana State University. He also heads the literary magazine Exquisite Corpse, now published on the Internet.

Andrei Codrescu was born in Sibu, Romania, in nineteen forty-six. When he was nineteen years old, he left the country with his mother. Mister Codrescu says Israel paid two thousand dollars each to buy freedom for Jews in communist Romania. At that time, West Germany did the same for ethnic Germans in Romania.

But instead of going to Israel, Mister Codrescu and his mother came to the United States. He says he now feels more American than anything else. He became an American citizen in nineteen eighty-one.


Andrei Codrescu began to write poetry when he was sixteen years old. He says Romanians have a strong love for poetry, and a language that expresses images well. He also says writing poetry was a rebellious act because the communists banned a lot of writing.

Years later, as an American, Mister Codrescu recorded the end of communist rule in Romania in nineteen eighty-nine. He wrote a book, “The Hole in the Flag: A Romanian Exile’s Story of Return and Revolution.”

Andrei Codrescu has also traveled around the United States and observed life. His film “Road Scholar” describes unusual communities. He wrote a book with the same name. He says he learned that people with differences can live together.


Many new immigrants in America are from Africa. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is from Nigeria. She has published short stories and a book, "Purple Hibiscus." It has been nominated for international prizes, including the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the Orange Prize.

"Purple Hibiscus" won the two thousand four Hurston/Wright Legacy Award for a first work of fiction. These awards honor writers of African ancestry.

Miz Adiche grew up in the university town of Nsukka. Her parents were professors. She came to the United States in nineteen ninety-six to go to college. She was nineteen years old.

She says Nigeria will always be her home. But she says she needs distance to be able to write about that country better. In fact, Chimamanda Adichie says that sometimes, when she is back in Nigeria, she writes about Nigerians in America.


"Purple Hibiscus" is set in Nigeria. It is about a young woman growing up in a troubled family while the country faces political unrest. There are some similarities to real-life events. Miz Adichie says the stories of people who suffered must be told.

"Purple Hibiscus" also deals with the importance of modern religion in Nigeria today. At the same time, Chimamanda Adichie explores the clash between modern religion and African tradition.


Our three programs over the past year about writers and the immigrant experience is online at VOICE ONE:

Our series was written by Doreen Baingana and produced by Caty Weaver. I'm Steve Ember.


And I’m Faith Lapidus. Join us again next week for THIS IS AMERICA, in VOA Special English.